Last year I focused on trying to break into travel writing. I attended a Media Bistro workshop in DC that was excellent, and I spent a lot of time on web sites featuring travel writing (see table.) Unfortunately, it isn’t easy even though Media Bistro offers an 8-week online course that goes into the process in much more detail.
My process was simple and direct. Make a pitch to a travel publication (primarily print magazines) and send a query (usually via email) and wait for a response. I really fell down on the follow-ups since it’s entirely possible that the appropriate person never received those emails. A lot of magazines now have online forms for you to use in making submissions and won’t accept email or snail mail submissions. I’ve explored some of the online ezines but not the online versions of the print magazines (that appear to have different staffs.) The online versions are not just repeats of the print versions and often have original content.
Since I travel fairly regularly I had focused on trips I had planned and sent my queries based on those future trips. I researched the back issues of the magazines to see if those destinations had been covered recently. I didn’t consider that perhaps they weren’t interested in those destinations or that my angle or spin didn’t fit their style. Anyway, the only response I got was from Budget Travel that my article (not just a query) was close but not quite right. They later published an article by another North Carolina writer about the barbeque trail in NC of well-known restaurants. That seemed old hat to me, but apparently they considered it unique.
Here is the list of web sites related to travel writing:
Best Travel Writing http://www.besttravelwriting.com/
World in Focus http://www.worldinfocuscontest.com/indexnew.shtml
AWAi Travel Writing http://www.freelancetravelwriter.com/
Visual Travel Tours http://www.visualtraveltours.com/
Specialty travel http://www.specialtytravel.com/stories/index.shtml
Rough Guides http://www.roughguides.com/website/aboutus/WorkForUs/Default.aspx
Magazines & Tourism Directory http://www.traveltourismdirectory.com/Publications/Magazines-and-E-zines.html
Ytravel blog http://www.ytravelblog.com/
Non-fiction course http://non-fiction-writing-course.thecraftywriter.com/freelance-travel-writing/
150 Top Travel blogs http://www.invesp.com/blog-rank/General_Travel
Media bistro http://www.mediabistro.com/Travel-Writing-Basics-Embrace-the-Locals-91-ondemandvideo.html
Visual Travel Tours has just published a photo tour guide of mine providing commentary and directions for a walking tour of downtown Raleigh. It is a unique program that is different from traditional comprehensive printed guidebooks in that: 1) the programs are downloaded directly from the Internet to your computer or smartphone, 2) most of the 128 tours cover specialized areas or interests rather than broad coverage of a city or state. The San Francisco-based company publishes 128 tours internationally. I submitted 92 photographs electronically in .jpg format along with brief narration paragraphs to describe and follow each photo. The company has a standard format (pdf) for their QuietGuides, but they also offer voice-over narration guides where you can listen to the descriptions of the tours rather than just read on a screen. The third option includes a CD disc with all of the information on the disc rather than having to download from the Internet if you have a slow connection. You also can access the tours on Amazon.com and download their Kindle format.
You can access my tour directly at: http://visualtraveltours.com/tours_show.html?id=916
I won’t go into all of the details of their pay schedule or guidelines for authors to submit potential tours, but it includes an initial fee plus royalties versus a contract price on usual “fee-for-hire” books. The big advantage for writers is that it doesn’t take 2 years to compile like it does for a comprehensive printed guide.
In my case, the production cycle took three months, but I don’t know if that is their usual schedule. It is a lot simpler process than trying to create a unique iPhone application, submitting it to Apple, and then trying to promote it in the maze of thousands of apps. Visual Travel Tours owns the copyright to your tour, but they also handle the distribution and promotion. This company does not appear to yet receive a lot of press coverage or recognition in the travel media so it remains to be seen how it may grow. They have a list of prospective tours for which they are looking for authors.
Perhaps the most significant impact for me resulted in my decision to focus more on my photography. I have more than 6,000 travel photos on my hard drive in iPhoto format (jpg) so I’m looking into potential sales to stock photo sites as well as other outlets for income streams from photography. Since nearly every web site offers an opportunity for “readers” to upload their photos, it appears that the glut of digital photographers may reduce the income potential for professional photographs. It is a problem similar to the “content mills” that pay very little for writers. I have shot travel photos for more than 50 years but still consider myself an amateur even though friends compliment my photos. I’ve never entered a photo contest so I’ve had not any independent evaluation. I just purchased a new Olympus digital camera and enrolled in a photography class to upgrade my equipment and skills.
In contrast to the AWAI hype promoting their 3-day conference that promises you will get immediate assignments if only you take their courses, Tim Leffel in his book Travel Writing 2.0 takes a much more skeptical view of your prospects. His book is available from http://writersweekly.com/books/4814.html either as an e-book for $9.95 or a paperback book for $17.95. He includes comments from 52 writers that he interviewed plus his own experience.
Like many others, his assessment is that the opportunities for assignments in the traditional print media are declining while the opportunities online are growing. Whether you query the online version of a traditional magazine, an original website, or set up a business account for your own web site or blog, you will still need to network and establish connections in person. One of the disadvantages of the Acrobat version of his book is that it doesn’t remember where you left off in reading the book.
He talks about magazines, newspapers, trade periodicals, guidebooks, books, and corporate writing in the traditional markets; and blogging, webzines, web sites in the digital world. Other income opportunities include Google’s AdSense and various aggregated affiliated advertising co-ops. (I carry ads on my web site but not this blog. On the other hand, I paid Google’s Adwords to drive traffic to my site.) Most of the potential assignments are in periodicals (both in print and online) that are not travel publications per se but have a travel or lifestyle section. He agrees with Jason Clampitt that service articles are the heart of travel writing.
Of course the big controversy in travel writing is whether or not to accept comp travel, that is the sponsor pays for the travel. This can be either as a press tour for a group of writers or as an individually sponsored tour. You have to follow the policy of the periodical where you make your pitch regardless of your opinion.
The second half of the book is devoted to advice on how to succeed as a freelancer more than specifically to travel writing so I will not detail that section here.
Monday I attended a 3-hour workshop on travel writing conducted by Jason Clampet, online editor for Frommer’s Travel Guides for Media Bistro in Washington, DC. He condensed a weeklong class into an evening presentation, including questions, so he covered a lot of information quickly.
The good news is that new writers have more options to establish a platform now to get an editor’s attention, such as personal web sites and blogs, that can build a personal brand at low cost. As for social media, he uses Twitter more than LinkedIn. The bad news is that because of the reorganization of the business models for magazines and books and the conversion to more online publications, the odds for getting a positive response to your excellent query are only about 1:15. (Other writers usually quote odds of 1:10.)
I guess the theme of his presentation was that persistence pays off. You must study your potential markets carefully and note the specific staff person for your applicable section of a publication, usually not a senior editor. Start with the most junior person, often an editorial assistant when making your pitch. You also should brainstorm your ideas for a pitch and analyze both the unique qualities of your idea and specifically how it would fit a publication. You also should note that there usually is a wall between the staff of the online version and the print version of a publication so you would need to direct your pitch separately, depending on how you see your fit.
Regardless of how the market is changing with the glut of writers and content mills that won’t pay writers, the traditional values of marketing yourself still apply. Editors are looking for relevant clips, expect a finely crafted query that will instantly get their attention and may respond only after repeated queries of a long period of time with different pitches until you make one that fits a particular need at that moment. E-mail queries are increasing accepted by most editors, and phone calls are not. You may call an administrative assistant for more detailed information, specifically whom you should query for a particular section, but most editors only will be annoyed if they even will accept your call.
He was brutally honest in criticizing many publications that will not accept articles from writers who have accepted “freebies” for travel. Since very few magazines have the budget anymore to pay your expenses, they are unrealistic in expecting writers to cover their own expenses. Their rationale appears to be that you should write about the destination where you live because you are the local expert. Travel writing is formulaic and provides a service for the reader rather than being a “creative” form of writing. You want your personality to show through, but you must cover the basics first. Travel memoirs are a hard sell.
Considering the extra expense of traveling to DC for such a short presentation, I think in the future that I will stick with the online offerings of Media Bistro or Avant Guild where I can learn many of the same ideas.
While the snow was on the ground last week, I finished the book on the history of Google. I then started a book by a National Geographic writer Tim Brookes’ travel to India. It is a striking contrast to the tightly compact, densely factoid style of Auletta that has to be slowly digested for the impact to sink it. Since I only got inside the walls of the Geographic fortress once for a polite but perfunctory interview, I am jealous of Brookes’ carte blanche expense account, but then he has written for many other travel magazines, has been a commentator on NRP, and has written several other books so I suppose he deserves that treatment. He writes with a sardonic, but not cruel sarcasm that is both witty and amusing. You just sorta go with the flow as though it is a stream of consciousness wrapped in a dream.
Two of my friends just recently returned from trips to India so I have some comparisons by which to judge his adventures. One was ectastic about the trip, but then he has loved everything Indian for years. The other is a jaded world traveler who has been everywhere and was less enthusiastic. Of course the Victorians were enamoured with their colony on the subcontinent and all of the exotic spices, silks, and specimens that were shipped to the mother country by dutiful public servants.
Somehow I’ve just never been very interested in going to India. Perhaps it is the dire poverty or the blinding heat or the fact that I find the food indigestible. I guess I’m just too plebian or too old and too escounced in my comfortable lair to be intrigued by the exotic and totally foreign culture of India. I’m much more interested in a trip to Russia or Egypt, which I hope to arrange some day.
What is most interesting about the book is the fact that he has chosen to publish with a local New Hampshire publisher, and I actually ordered the book from a local bookstore after I got acquainted with Tim on LinkedIn. To give away his secrets, the title of the book Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment is a parody on the weather forecaster’s “chance of rain” and the hippies search in India for “enlightenment.” It is available from the web site: http://www.thirtypercentchance.com
I created a new travel brochure about the Triangle area of North Carolina that includes Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill and uploaded it to my web site today. The web authoring software that I use is Sandvox, and it came out a couple of years before iWeb was available for the Mac. It handles Acrobat (pdf) files differently than Word files so it was something of a learning curve in doing it. The first mistake I made was not compressing the Acrobat file before I uploaded it, which produced a huge 100 MB file that took forever to upload and still too long to download. So I had to go back and compress the file and upload it again. Some how I still can’t get the thumbnail photo to work so it just displays DOWNLOAD in the header. I had to put in an explanation in the home page what that meant and where it led, which isn’t very cool web design. But because I opted for something relatively simple, especially in comparison with Dreamweaver, my software and my techniques are somewhat limited. I wanted a site that I could design, modify, and upload myself on my .me account without having to hire a designer and a techie to do the routine uploads to the host. I did that on my first web site 12 years ago as a marketing consultant, and it cost me a fortune that was not cost-effective.
The question is whether or not it is worth the time taken from actually writing to maintain a web site. Everyone says that a writer has to have a web site and be actively involved in the social media sites, but does that really generate sales? I have gotten some writing assignments directly from my web site, but it still doesn’t provide as much return on investment (of time) as old-fashioned query letters and personal networking. If you have a book, all of the talk is about building and maintaining a “platform”, i.e. a public image or brand that includes public appearances both in person and online. My platform is rather small although I was surprised the other day to show up in the local newspaper in Abilene, Texas when a reporter pulled a quote from my book. I guess that just shows you never know where it all may end up.
A friend and I have decided to go down to Wilmington, NC after Christmas just to get away for awhile. We also considered going to Charlottesville, Va where I haven’t been in several years but decided on a shorter trip. Wilmington has worked hard in recent years to preserve its historic downtown while the suburbs and tourism kept growing. The downtown is still a very walk able area and recalls the era when the city was the largest in the state. I usually go during the Azalea Festival in the spring, which is truly beautiful, but this is my first winter trip there.
It will be a change of pace from the usual round of holiday parties and concerts that have consumed every evening (with one exception) since I returned from Washington, DC three weeks ago. We drove up there for Thanksgiving to visit other friends and to attend the San Francisco Ballet’s production of Giselle at the Kennedy Center. In between I snuck in a little writing for a new project that may grow into a major assignment in ’09. This isn’t the time of year to be soliciting assignments, but this one fell into my lap. (Actually it was a response to my web site www.johnsuddath.com.)
Other than the potential for a great writing assignment, the most exciting event in my life recently was attending a concert by Harry Connick, Jr. and Bradford Marsalis at the new Durham Performing Arts Center. At 2,800 seats it is the largest auditorium in the Triangle and has wonderful acoustics and sight lines. It will become the summer home of the American Dance Festival that has long needed a better performance venue. It is adjacent to the Durham Bulls Baseball stadium and the huge new American Tobacco office complex that is a renovation of the old tobacco warehouses and manufacturing plant. Durham doesn’t have to play second fiddle to Raleigh or Chapel Hill anymore for entertainment.
If you think that I’ve been playing a lot more than I’ve been working, you’re right. But come January the situation will change. Of course, the New Year may bring a big change for a lot of other folks too.